Workshop's hysterical 'Art' is smart, stylish, satisfying

Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2014, 1:05 pm
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By Jonathan Turner,
Stephen Sondheim famously wrote "Art isn't easy," in his landmark 1984 musical about creating art, "Sunday in the Park With George."

And at the equally challenging, uncompromising and intelligent QC Theatre Workshop in Davenport, "Art" isn't easy, either. But the 85-minute play -- blistering, caustic and thoughtfully literate -- is thoroughly satisfying, a tumultuous, thrilling, laugh-out-loud theatrical roller-coaster ride.

Premiered in Paris in 1994, "Art" was written by Yasmina Reza, a French playwright and the only woman ever to win two Tony Awards for best play (this one in '98, and the other in 2009 for "God of Carnage"). The hyper-articulate, high-concept comedy has been translated into more than 30 languages.

A contemporary art lover, Serge (Mike Schulz), is beaming over his recent purchase of a famous artist's unframed work for $200,000. The problem is, it's entirely white, with some white diagonal lines, and his shocked best friend, Marc (Adam Michael Lewis), thinks it's worthless. He calls it a word unprintable in a family paper, but Serge bitterly claims his friend knows nothing about contemporary painting.

Not only does "Art" dazzlingly explore the meaning and value of artwork, but also deeply reflects the importance and worth of friendship, respect, and opinion. With breathtaking verbal fireworks, we're thrust into an apocalyptic intellectual battle, and maelstrom of male camaraderie, competitiveness and ego.

The same three actors on the QC Theatre Workshop stage (including an emotional Aaron Randolph III as the well-meaning, mild-mannered schlub Yvan), reprise their roles from an outstanding 2010 Curtainbox Theatre production in the Village of East Davenport.

Though it's the same vitriolic script, and the trio of men deliver their voluminous, rapid-fire dialogue with the same intensity, clarity and towering strength of character, this "Art" is its own, fresh production, directed with authority and confidence by Workshop artistic director Tyson Danner.

The biggest difference is in the sleek, stylish, modern apartment set -- designed by Tyler Reinert (a St. Ambrose alum who was technical director for the Workshop's 'Red" and scenic designer for "Private Eyes" and True West."). Since "Art" is so much about appreciation of the visual, this eye for taste and refinement is crucial. (Switching apartments is easily done by switching the framed art in back.)

It's also no coincidence that this new "Art" is being exhibited precisely two years after the Workshop's amazing inaugural production, also a bold, one-act meditation on modern art. QCTW debuted in August 2012 at the former Johnson School gym, with John Logan's Tony-winning "Red," about the 20th-century abstract artist Mark Rothko, also played by Mr. Schulz.

A longtime film and theater critic, Mr. Schulz brings overwhelming power, nuance and fervor to each role in his impressively expanding acting resume. Like his tortured Rothko, Mr. Schulz's Serge in "Art" is demanding, prickly, moody, hyper-sensitive, and can be incredibly hurtful. The actor's red-faced expressions, impatience and anger are withering without Mr. Schulz having to say a word.

Serge blames Marc for insensitivity, tactlessness, condescension and contempt. Mr. Lewis endows the more sympathetic Marc (with whom we more easily identify) with his characteristic neurotic charm, and his tense arguments with Mr. Schulz are terrific, titanic, smart struggles. We feel for each of them.

Mr. Randolph -- a prolific composer and playwright who's written for Workshop productions -- is the most ordinary Joe in the story; harmless, eager to please, and who unwittingly gets sucked into the middle of this vicious vortex. Serge and Marc pressure Yvan to take sides about the artwork, and he soon melts down over an unrelated (albeit stressful) matter, his upcoming wedding.

As he did so well in 2010, Mr. Randolph unspools his long, furious tirade, and later in the play cries and yells uncontrollably. He tells his friends he's not like them -- he doesn't have their strong opinions or refined sensibilities, and he can't be an authority figure. He just wants to be a friend.

The play is hysterical also in several spotlit moments, when they allow each of the characters to explain their true feelings alone to the audience. They have one face they display to the others, and another is what they really think to us. Still, in the story the men are not shy about letting the insults and cutting remarks pierce, with astounding frequency.

"Art" teaches us not only how to view creativity, but how to treat our friends. It still isn't easy.

If you go

What: "Art."
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (plus Aug. 29-30) and 3 p.m. Sunday.
Where: QC Theatre Workshop, 1730 Wilkes Ave., Davenport.
Tickets: Presented under the company's "Pay What It's Worth" policy, which allows patrons to determine their own ticket prices following each performance. For more information, visit

NOTE: If you come to the Friday show, you can stay to see Brent Tubbs and Bob Kelly at 9:30 p.m., improvising an entire one-act play based on the set for "Art." The two are regulars at ComedySportz and the Establishment Theatre, Rock Island. Mr. Tubbs and Mr. Kelly have more than 24 years of improv experience between them, and have been members of ComedySportz since 2000.

Mr. Tubbs has been a member of ComedySportz QC, Los Angeles and Sacramento; is a graduate of The Second City Improv Conservatory in Los Angeles, and a cast member of The Reduced Shakespeare Company. Mr. Kelly is a member of Guys In Ties the traveling improv group and a bass player for the band Wicked Liz and The Bellyswirls.


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